A new study estimates that if just 10% of cars on the road were self-driving, the U.S. economy would see an overall economic increase of $38 billion and 1,000 fewer traffic deaths per year.
Released by the Eno Center for Transportation, the study predicted that 90% penetration of autonomous cars could create $447 billion in economic savings and 21,700 fewer traffic-related deaths per year.
An Associated Press report cites federal research estimating that more than 90% of automobile crashes are the result of driver error, more than 40% of which can be attributed to alcohol, drugs, fatigue or other distractions. Naturally, removing 10% of drivers from the roads will eliminate a significant amount of that risk.
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How long until this happens still remains under debate. Google's fully autonomous car has already driven more than 500,000 miles, and the company expects it to be ready to drive en masse by 2018. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently said his company's driverless car will be street-ready by 2016, the same year in which another autonomous car system from Israeli company Mobileye is expected to reach the market.
Even with the capable cars, however, many others believe the transportation infrastructure and data management technology needed to support them will take much longer to implement nationwide.
Dr. Alberto Broggi, IEEE Senior Member and professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Parma in Italy, doesn't think autonomous will catch on in a significant capacity until about 2040. Massive changes will need to be made to roadway infrastructure, such as designated lanes allowing self-driving cars to travel in closer proximity, adjustments to speed limits, and even an overhaul of transportation resources within federal and state governments.
Similarly, IDC's program manager for product life-cycle strategies Sheila Brennan has warned that data management issues will keep autonomous vehicles from mainstream acceptance until about 2040. This is uncharted territory, and it's still unclear how the data will be sorted once it's being created on such a massive scale.
"It's extremely valuable data," Brennan says. "I can't argue that point. That data will be worth a lot, and it's still not clear, again, how the consumer will play out."
The privacy concerns that will arise when self-driving cars can be tracked by the data they create are likely to postpone attempts at regulating it. Automakers will need to devise privacy and security agreements that both protect them legally and satisfy the demands of the public.
Considering that the automotive industry has little experience in this space, this process could take longer than it seems, Brennan says.
"I think there are a lot of regulators and a lot of privacy and security issues that need to be overcome prior to that, a lot of interoperability issues that need to be overcome," Brennan says. "And the automotive industry in general moves very slowly in many senses."
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Ciscoand Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is email@example.com.
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